Willy Wonka-style chocolate shop and factory to open in former Sutton Coldfield Co-op

A new independent chocolate shop and factory is opening in the centre of Sutton Coldfield promising tasty treats, activities and more. The new shop will be run by a British Army veteran who was forced to leave his dream job, but is now determined to make a success of the venture and help support fellow veterans.

Brummie, Liam Hall, served in the army in the Royal Logistics Corp. He was both a soldier and a cook and toured around the world including in Iraq and British bases in Canada, Belgium, Germany and Ireland.

But he was forced to leave the armed forces after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, meaning he could not serve as a soldier. Now the determined 37-year-old is opening a chocolate shop and factory under his Military Chef brand in the former Co-op travel store at the Gracechurch Centre.

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It will host chocolate-making courses, host parties, sell his unique handmade chocolates with flavours, have chocolate fountains and offer other veteran products for sale. You will even be able to buy a box of chocolates and send it to someone serving in the army in the shop’s special postbox.

It’s chocolate selling with a strong nod to Liam’s army past. His shop and kitchen will also be ‘staffed by veterans’.

Liam got a taste for cheffing, having first worked peeling potatoes for his then local chippy The Boundary in Kings Heath. Liam had wanted to join the army as an infantry soldier but was told to ‘go and get a career first’.

'I loved being in the army, it was the best time for me'

He trained at the Birmingham ‘College of Cake’, aka the College of Food at Birmingham University in his teens. And then signed up for military service, given a ‘golden hello’ into the army as he already had his chef training, at the same time his parents moved to live in Turkey.

He said: “It was really the best time for me. I loved being in the army. I was with the Royal Logistics Corp and we would join another unit, one time the Royal Welsh. Wherever they went we went.

“You would be serving 10,000 or 20,000 soldiers and it was a 24-hour operation. It was a great career. I loved every minute of it. Suddenly being told I was being medically discharged was upsetting.”

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Liam, who now lives in Erdington, worked for a military charity after he left the forces, working in schools helping harder to reach students. He said he received help from the poppy factory to get employment. “They helped me get to where I’ve got now and I want to give back.”

He left the charity after three years as it relied on funding and the job wasn’t secure. He then turned back to being a chef, first as a catering manager at a school, then the head chef at Birmingham Airport.

From there he joined Rational, demonstrating how to use the German firm’s convection ovens. Before working at a Warwickshire hotel and wedding venue.

'I always wanted my own business, but I never had the bo****ks'

But for a second time, Liam’s career hit the buffers when the pandemic struck. He was put on furlough and then out of a job.

But that setback led to his brainwave of starting his business as the ‘Military Chef’ in February 2021 during the third national lockdown. A brand no one had invented before. “I always wanted my own business and in all honesty, I never had the bo****ks to do it. But then I had the opportunity to do it.

“There was no military chef or food business, so that’s how I came up with the name. The reason we started with chocolate was it’s safe to make at home.”

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And the Military Chef, come chocolatier was born. He opened a unit at the Market Village site in South Parade and is now heading up to the town’s main Gracechurch shopping centre, with huge plans to make it a success.

These include an open kitchen at the upper level of the former Co-op so people can see the chocolate being made, a workshop on the level nearest the Parade where people can be shown how to make chocolate at children’s parties, hen dos, corporate events and more.

The shop will of course sell chocolate – but what makes it so special. Liam explained: “We blend Belgian chocolate, - the best and make our own flavours. All our cocoa beans come from Africa.”

'We sell grab bags, like military rations'

Liam sells grab bags ‘like military rations, which can be taken anywhere’ with flavours like cherry-loaded tiffin milk chocolate, coconut coated in dark or milk chocolate, cookies n cream-loaded white chocolate fruit b nut in milk or dark varieties and honeycomb coated creamy white chocolate at £3.50 a bag.

While he also sells chocolate boxes, a more luxury ‘posh’ range aimed at gift-giving like loyal toast port chocolates, luxury cappuccino creams, luxury Turkish delight chocolates, luxury Malibu, mango and coconut or a mixed box – each around £8.

Chocolates can be personalised too – ideal for events. While there’s ‘merch’ in the shape of hoodies and t-shirts too.

'The Gracechurch Centre owners came to me to get me there'

Asked why he is moving to the Gracechurch Centre when it is about to be redeveloped, Liam said he was ‘twitchy’ about the Market Village site after the Perry Barr and Stratford sites were closed. But said the new Gracechurch owners asked him to move his business there.

He said: “We do well online and have our products at a number of stockists like the National Army Museum, the Tank Museum the National Memorial Arboretum and quite a few farm shops.

“We do chocolate-making courses. And also go to events and food markets. But the Gracechurch Centre owners came to me every single week trying to get me up there.

“Although it’s being developed, it’s still two years from that. And what we bring to the town is totally different. We will have an open kitchen where you can watch us make the chocolate.

“At the front half will be a retail shop selling the products, chocolate fountains to dip items like strawberries in, an ‘academy’ workshop area for chocolate-making courses and a ‘veteran’s corner’ selling other veteran’s businesses’ goods.”

Sutton’s ‘Willy Wonka’ has a much bigger chocolate producer nearby – Brum’s own Cadbury. But like in the film he hopes his small innovative business, which will open in ‘early May’ can fight back against the chocolate giant and taste success on the high street…